Hungary's Sweet 'Wine Of Kings' Is Getting a Crisp, 21st-Century Makeover


Tim McKirdy
Hungary’s Sweet ‘Wine Of Kings’ Is Getting a Crisp, 21st-Century Makeover

Called “the wine of kings, the king of wines” by Louis XIV, Hungary’s sweet Azsú wines from Tokaj are among the most celebrated in the world.

But while Hungary’s most famous region is associated with these botrytized sweet wines, dry Tokaji, too, has firm roots in local tradition. Dating back to the 1700s, vinum ordinárium, or ordinary wine (a reference to its production technique, rather than quality), was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, who enjoyed its “silky” character.

In the early 19th century, dry Tokaji accounted for roughly two-thirds of the region’s exports. During Hungary’s Communist period, however, from 1949 until 1989, the style was largely lost to mass production directives. Now, dry Tokaji, particularly that made with the local Furmint variety, is experiencing a renaissance.

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Following the end of the Second World War, Communist cooperatives controlled the majority of Hungarian wine production. Quality was poor and remained so until the end of 1989, when the fall of communism returned Hungarian winemaking to local families.

Working with international partners like British wine writer Hugh Johnson, locals aimed to revive traditional techniques. High-quality sweet wines like Tokaji Azsú and Tokaji Essencia resurged.

Azsú wine is produced using hand-picked botrytized grapes, which are fermented with a dry or semi-sweet base wine. The resulting lusciously sweet, marmalade-scented nectar maintains piercing acidity.

Essencia, meanwhile, is the rarest of all Tokaji wines. Made from the free-run juice of Azsú berries, its high sugar content means fermentation can take up to eight years, and the wine only ever reaches around 3 percent alcohol.

In 1993, the Royal Tokaji company produced its first vintage of the viscous, amber wine. The wine is so rich and luxurious that it is typically served on ornate, crystal spoons. “Whenever I drink Essencia, I feel… imperial,” Sharon Stone wrote in a thank you note to the company, after receiving Essencia as a wedding gift.

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Tokaj’s dry wines, however, took a slightly more circuitous path to resurgence. A combination of climate change and evolving consumer tastes drove its revival.

September rainfall is key to Azsú production as it helps spread botrytis. But with the increasing influence of global warming, crucial rainfall doesn’t always arrive. Currently, Azsú can be made in just five or six out of every 10 vintages.

In years with no botrytized Azsú berries, winemakers have two options: produce sweet late-harvest wines, or pick grapes earlier for a drier style. Since the turn of the millennium, a growing number of winemakers have opted to make dry wines over sweet wines, which were becoming unfashionable among health-conscious consumers.

Both dry and sweet styles utilize indigenous varieties like Furmint and Hárslevelű, as well as Yellow Muscat, known locally as Sárgamuskotály. Furmint makes up 70 percent of Tokaj’s plantings and is undoubtedly the regions iconic grape.

Thin-skinned and late-ripening, Furmint is an ideal host for botrytis. Yet its racy acidity and high tannins mean it’s capable of producing complex dry wines.

“Furmint is our [native] grape variety, and it’s excellent at expressing our unique terroir,” Péter Molnár, general manager at Patricius Tokaj, says. The region’s volcanic, mineral-rich soils present themselves in the form of steely and chalky minerality, characteristics that are otherwise dampened by Azsú’s sweetness.

Larger producers with multiple vineyards, such as Royal Tokaji, have the luxury of producing both dry and sweet wines — whether they be Azsú wines or late-harvest — every vintage. Key to developing its dry style, which was first released in 2003, was understanding how vineyard practices should vary from sweet to dry wines.

“When we started to produce dry wines, we considered that over-ripening the grapes slightly and getting higher alcohols would balance [Furmint’s] natural acidity,” Royal Tokaji’s general manager, Zoltán Kovács, says. “We realized later that that was the wrong path for us.”

Now, the company increases canopy cropping, which lowers yields, and produces earlier-ripening grapes with lower alcohol levels and more acidity.

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With a decreasing number of Azsú-suitable vintages, Tokaj winemakers are working together to develop Furmint’s reputation worldwide. In Hungary, they launched an annual Furmint Festival, which takes place during the first week of September.

Local producers meet to share and taste both dry and sweet Furmint wines, and exchange winemaking knowledge and opinions on different styles. Some winemakers focus on crisp, fruit-driven styles, produced using stainless steel fermentation. Others use a portion of new oak, adding richness and ageability.

Deciding which style to produce is less dependent on preference and more dictated by the vineyard, says Molnár. “There is no recipe for using oak, or stainless steel, or mixing,” he says. Rather, winemakers use whichever technique best expresses their terroir.

Outside Hungary, government-sponsored organizations champion the grape in international markets.

FurmintUSA was founded in 2014 to “promote the variety and wines — mostly dry Furmint — in the USA,” Co-Founder László Bálint says. The company currently works with 12 producers, representing them at key industry tastings, such as San Diego’s SOMMCon. “We strongly believe that Hungarian wine — and Furmint in particular — is on track to becoming a key participant in the U.S. wine market,” Bálint says.

(The fact that the gover

nment is backing easy-for-anglophones-to-pronounce Furmint, and not Hárslevelű or Sárgamuskotály, may not just be due to its superior plantings.)

Dry Tokaji wines have a recognizable, unique, bottle form — a clever marketing tactic previously adopted by Bordeaux and Burgundy. The variety even has its own designated Riedel glass, an indication that those in the industry, at least, are taking notice.

“The exciting thing for Furmint is the openness in markets for new experiences and grape varieties,” says Charles Mount, managing director of Royal Tokaji. “If you look at the U.S., Grüner [Veltiner] is a fairly established variety, Albariño is a fairly established variety, but they weren’t always.”

The success of these varieties demonstrates two things, Mount says. “An educated and interested consumer will try new things,” he says, “And something which was unheard of five, 10 years ago can absolutely become established.”

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